Against the Law: Hannah McDuffie, Levi Nichols, and Interracial Marriage in Reconstruction Randolph County, North Carolina

Recently, I was asked to research the ancestry of Elmina Nichols Spencer (1851-1928). It was around the time of the anniversary of the milestone Supreme Court ruling, Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia. That ruling struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia, and elsewhere, that forbade interracial marriage.[1]

The legal restrictions on interracial marriage were never universal, although social mores against it were found everywhere. There were nine states that never had such laws: Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Vermont & Wisconsin. Eleven states repealed their laws in 1887; fourteen more repealed theirs between 1948 and 1967. However, sixteen states still had laws in place in 1967 when the Supreme Court heard arguments against the practice in the Loving v. Virginia case. [2] Among those sixteen was North Carolina.[3]

 

Malcom + Almina Spencer 1870
Macam Spencer & Almina (Nichols) Spencer, 1870 census

It was not difficult finding Elmina Nichols Spencer with her husband, Malcolm Spencer, and their baby, son, James, in the 1870 census.[4] Elmina and Malcolm married in 1868.[5] The marriage record said that Elmina was the daughter of Levi Nichols, “of color.” I looked then for Levi Nichols. I was able to find Levi and his wife Hannah in the 1870 census as well.

Malcom Spencer + Almina Nichols MC 1868
Macom Spencer & Elmina Nicols Marriage Bond, 1868.

The 1870 census showed Levi, his wife Hannah, and their son Daniel.[6] They were all listed as “Mulattoes.” Since the 1870 census listed Levi and Hannah as people with a mixed racial background, I thought it was possible that they could be found on the 1860 census as free persons of color. I knew that if I did not find one or the other that whichever person was missing was likely enslaved. I found both of them on the 1860 census, in neighboring Montgomery County.[7] They were both free, but that was not all I found.

Levi Nichols + Hannah McDuffie 1860
Levi Nichols & Hannah McDuffie, 1860 Census

Apparently not married yet, Levi and Hannah were living in the same household. Hannah was listed under her presumed maiden name, “Hannah McDuffie.” There were also two young children, “Elinor” (Elmina) and “Daniel W.” Their last names were listed as McDuffie. Levi was listed as a farmer, with real property valued at $500 and personal property at $350. Hannah was not listed as employed. However, it was their racial designations that caught my eye. Levi was listed as “w” for white, but Hannah was listed as “m” for mulatto.  The 1870 census had called them both “m” or “mulatto.” Had the census-taker made a mistake and omitted marking Levi’s column “m” for mulatto? I decided to take a look at the 1850 census.

Levi Nichols 1850 census
Levi Nichols, 1850 census

In 1850, Levi was listed as a farmer in Montgomery County, with real property valued at $300.[8] In his household were children, Harriet Polk, Elizabeth Polk, and William Northcot. They were all listed as “white.” I found Hannah McDuffie as well. She was living in the home of Elizabeth Hancock.[9] Hannah she was listed as “mulatto,” just as she had been in the 1860 and 1870 census. She did not have any children living with her.

There is no evidence of another Levi Nichols who was a white landowner or a man of color owning land. So, how did Levi Nichols go from being a white man to a man of color? He was claiming to be married to Hannah, but that would be against the law. So, what was their relationship?

Levi Nichols + Hannah McDuffie MC 1867
Levi Nichols & Hannah McDuffie Marriage Bond, 1867.

Additional research uncovered Levi and Hannah’s legal marriage record from 1867.[10] Both Levi and Hannah were referred to as “of color.” Levi’s parents on his marriage certificate were listed as John and Zelpha Nichols. I looked for them, wondering, “Were they white, too?”

John Nichols+Hannah McDuffie 1850
John & Zilpha Nichols, 1850. Hannah McDuffie is also on this page in the home of Elizabeth Hancock.

Looking at the 1850 census, I found John Nichols, his wife, Zilphia, and children, Thany, Noah, Mary, Gilbert, Amy, and Alby, who were all listed as white.[11]  They were enumerated just a few homes away from where Hannah McDuffie was living.

So, Hannah McDuffie, a free woman of color, a “mulatto,” who lived in the same general vicinity of the John Nichols family, of European descent, in 1850, went to live with Levi Nichols sometime after 1850, and was found living in his home by 1860, along with two small children.[12] In 1867, Levi and Hannah marry. However, with the laws against interracial marriage, their marriage was illegal.[13] It is safe to assume that Hannah could not pass for a white woman, especially if she remained in the community, but Levi could be considered a “light-skinned” man of color, a “mulatto,” even in his own community. I don’t have any information about how Levi was treated, but I am confident that his change of identity was not met with universal approval, whether from the white community or the African American community. How unusual was such a decision? It’s hard to say; there are no statistics of which I am aware. However, there are other examples in fiction and real life.

In Roots: The Next Generations (a fictionalized version of the last few chapters of Alex Haley’s Roots), Jim Warner, son of a former Confederate Army officer, falls in love with the Henning, Tennessee, African American school-teacher, Carrie Barden.[14] When Jim refuses to give up the relationship, his father disowns him. Jim marries Carrie and they live their lives within the segregated African American community.  Likewise, in The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, James McBride tells how he discovered that his white mother left her Orthodox Jewish family and community in Virginia and married two African American men (including McBride’s father), identifying herself as a “light-skinned” African American woman.[15]

In a post-Civil Rights era, the need to change one’s identity to be able to marry and live with a spouse from a different racial background has faded away. However, in Reconstruction North Carolina, with its anti-miscegenation laws, there were only two choices if one wanted to stay in North Carolina, either live together without marrying, adopting whatever public stance was needed to avoid arrest, or change one’s racial designation, in order to be able to legally marry. All evidence available indicates that Levi chose the latter path.

References

[1] Loving v. Virginia. Oyez. Retrieved from: www.oyez.org.

[2] Miscegenation. (n.d.). Retrieved from: Miscegenation Laws.pdf

[3] Lee, Robert E. (1963, 10 Nov.). NC Prohibits Any Marriage between Races. The Rocky Mount, N. C. Telegram. p. 7A. Retrieved from: Miscegenation Laws.pdf

[4] 1870 US Federal Census. Place: Back Creek, Randolph, North Carolina; Macon Spencer, head; Almira [sic] Spencer, inferred wife. NARA Roll: M593-1156; Page: 297A; Family History Library Film: 552655. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[5] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Randolph Marriage Bonds, 1800-1888]. Macam Spencer, of color, and Elmina Nicols, of color, 5 Mar 1868. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[6] 1870 US Federal Census. Place: Back Creek, Randolph, North Carolina; Levi Nicholds, head; Hannah Nicholds, inferred wife. NARA Roll: M593-1156; Page: 298A; Family History Library Film: 552655. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[7] 1860 US Federal Census. Place: Beans, Montgomery, North Carolina; Levi Nichols, head; Hannah McDuffie. NARA Roll: M653-905; Page: 483; Family History Library Film: 803905. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[8] 1850 US Federal Census. Place: Montgomery, North Carolina; Levi Nichols, head. NARA Roll: M432-637; Page: 142A; Image: 293. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[9] 1850 US Federal Census. Place: Montgomery, North Carolina; Elizabeth Hancock, head; Hannah McDuffie, age 28. NARA Roll: M432-637; Page: 142B; Image: 294. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[10] North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Randolph Marriage Bonds, 1800-1888]. Levi Nichols and Hannah McDuffie, 28 Sep 1867. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[11] 1850 US Federal Census. Place: Montgomery, North Carolina; John Nichols, head; Zilpha Nichols. NARA Roll: M432-637; Page: 142B; Image: 294. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[12] 1860 US Federal Census. Place: Beans, Montgomery, North Carolina; Levi Nichols, head; Hannah McDuffie. NARA Roll: M653-905; Page: 483; Family History Library Film: 803905. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[13] Lee, Robert E. (1963, 10 November). NC Prohibits Any Marriage between Races. The Rocky Mount, N. C. Telegram. p. 7A. Retrieved from: Miscegenation Laws.pdf

[14] Margulies, S. and Volper, D. L., Producers. (1979). Roots: The Next Generations (TV Mini-Series 1979). Wikipedia. Retrieved from: Roots: The Next Generations (TV Mini-Series 1979) 

[15] McBride, J. (2006). The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (New York: Penguin Books).

 

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